Excerpt from W.I.P. Orchid Mantis 3.

With the business of the werewolves (somewhat) put behind him, Gavin puts his focus on newer, more important goals… only to get sucked into yet more Supernatural Nonsense when his new job brings him face to face with inner-city intrigue and mysterious vampires. Why does Cho-rong care if Finley, by all accounts a feral nobody with no friends, makes it another night? He’s bound to find out whether he likes it or not, because what lives in Gav’s house is UNDENIABLY Gav’s business…


Night had fallen by the time Gav reached the park. He parked alongside the highway, a little ways away from the entrance.

“You ready, Alejandro?”

Alejandro took a long, long drink of sweet tea without looking up. When he did, his eyes darted away quick.

“It’s just Erik and his boys. There isn’t a reason to be so urgent about it.”

Fair enough. Between Gav, who was (mostly) indestructible, and Alejandro, one of Satan’s own hounds, there wasn’t a whole lot to fear from some bottom-feeder tick. It was the other residents he was concerned about. Wouldn’t do to get them involved, weren’t their faults they had a parasite, wouldn’t be right to have one of them get hurt. That felt pretty damn urgent.

These old, barely-scabbed feelings. Well, he got over the thing with wolves, kinda, so he could damn sure not get weird and traumatized for this little venture.

Gav crunched the white fill dirt and rocks under his boots, both fists shoved deep in his pockets, unlit cigarette clenched in his teeth. Alejandro drifted along beside him, gaze rolling over the battered siding and miscellaneous junk with no apparent destination. Every now and again, he reached up and scratched the buzzed hair on the side of his skull. His hand motion was quick and choppy, like a dog’s.

No problemo, just two dudes with alt haircuts and a shitload of tattoos, strolling through the park at o’ dark thirty. If they had a vampire and nobody had come to try and wreck his shit yet, though, these people probably knew how to shut up. That was promising. Dismal, though. People livin’ in fear that way.

Well, pretty rich of him to get sympathetic about that when he was about to cause a lot of fear to come at Erik very, very quickly. Maybe it was fitting. Call that shit karma.

The trailer was mostly hidden by a stand of oak trees in surprisingly good health, way on the other far side of the park. A tattered Confederate flag hung over one of the windows, probably to help block light. A sign printed on a rusty square of sheet metal riddled with bullet holes warned that “we don’t call 911 out here.” Yee, and dare he saw it, haw. His family had been just as gun-happy as you please, but they didn’t see no need to boast about it.

He was making to climb the stairs when he remembered the cigarette. He groped for his lighter and started his usual clumsy attempt to get it to spark. Fat fucking thumb of his.

“I can do that for you,” Alejandro piped up. “If you’d like.”

“Nah, nah. Just… takes me a few… tries… there we go!”

Light flared up, orange and rich, then flickered to dimness as the lighter went out and the cherry of his cigarette replaced it. Alejandro was staring at the trees. The color of light turned his cheeks dark red, darker than he would have thought. Gav pocketed his lighter, trusting that Alejandro would get his head out of the clouds. A predator is a predator, no matter how sleepy they look. Weird guy.

Good, well-made stairs on this trailer, didn’t creak a bit when Gav climbed them. There was even a little deck, which gave him good space to kick the door down.

He charged in, Alejandro at his heels and humming approval. A TV blaring some or another show Gav knew nothing about cast the whole living room in blue light until his shadow crossed it.

Erik was immediately recognizable. He was latched onto the throat of a middle-aged redneck. Sucking bled over the sound of the TV, greedy swallows and the high-pitched gasping of the victim. They both squirmed against each other, Erik in the redneck’s lap with both hands braced on his bare chest, totally absorbed in the high of feeding. The man probably hadn’t even heard the bang, and the vampire was slow. Talk about your good luck.

“Bwuh?” Erik queried with uncommon astuteness, looking up just in time for Gav to grab him by the front of the shirt and yank him up to face level. He was shockingly light, even for Gav, practically a boy, scrawny in camo pants and a bloodstained Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. Tousled brown hair hung in his eyes, which had gone saucer wide.

Gav didn’t let it affect him. He had to make the effort, though. For a tick! Not this shit again!

“Hey there, Erik, nice to finally meet you.” The cherry of Gav’s cigarette bobbed very, very close to Erik’s mouth, exactly the kind of intimidating he’d been thinking of when he lit it.

“Oh no, you’re Gavin Statzis.” Erik’s voice was just as nasally face to face as it was over the phone. His terror had a distinctly resigned edge.

No-shirt Redneck finally returned to the world of the living. He lunged for a Glock 19 resting on the counter top behind the sofa, leveled it at Gav with a commendably steady grip. One knee rested on the sofa cushion, the other against the linoleum floor, not the best angle but workable in these conditions.

“Take your fucking hands off him!” he snarled.

His pupils were still blown wide from being fed on and blood poured from the two wounds in his neck. Gav did him the courtesy of not looking at his incredibly obvious boner for more than a second. Besides, two more pressing issues busted out of the back room, guns already drawn. The smaller of the two took one look at Erik, dangling in Gav’s grip, and fired. Burning lead smacked Gav in the temple and clinked in pieces to the floor.

“Oh, damn, what a shot,” Gav said, shaking his head a little to dispel the ringing in his ears. Hot ash joined the bullet fragments.

Trigger-happy Redneck did not have an opportunity to respond, because his gun exploded. Well, not exploded exploded, more like sprang apart in pieces, but he leapt and hollered like it had well and truly blown up. Thanks, Alejandro.

Pandemonium erupting was the only response there could be to such a display.

“There’s a goddamn werewolf in the trailer!”

“Shitfire, is Old Henry here?!”

“I said fucking drop him, asshole!”

“Everyone shut up!” Erik yelled over the chaos. “Put your gun down, Ray!”

No-shirt Redneck didn’t budge. Gav was suddenly concerned for his wellbeing. In his experience, vampires took very unkindly to disobedient victims.

“But—”

“Quit your shit, man. He’s obviously immune to bullets.” There was a blur, almost too fast for Gav’s eyes to track, as Erik drew a pocketknife from his jeans, flicked it open, and slammed it hard into Gav’s arm. The tip of the blade shattered. “Ooh, boy. C’mon, hands up.”

“Like Hell!” exclaimed Trigger-happy Redneck. “Ain’t gonna let some big motherfucker come in here and treat you that way, Erik!”

“Mister, you are headed for a real bad time,” Gav said.

In response to this admittedly not-very-pacifying comment, Heretofore-silent Redneck emptied the clip of his MP9 into Gav’s side, entirely destroying his t-shirt. Good thing everyone here appeared to be a crack shot, because a stray bullet would have proved an extremely bad time for No-shirt Redneck. Might have inconvenienced Erik a bit, too. Also, where in the shit had he gotten a fucking MP9? Machine pistols were no joke!

Gav considered it bullshit that not a single one of them had popped a shot off at Alejandro. Not that he wanted him to get hurt, bullets weren’t fun even for wolves, but damn! He was right there. And had not been shown to be, as Erik had put it, immune to bullets. Why were they all focusing on—

Aw, goddammit. Not this shit again. Gav supposed he was lucky not everyone was as eager to pull out a piece as these guys. He shoulda known a bunch of dumb rednecks would respond to him this way. He was a dumb redneck. This ought to have been territory he was intimately familiar with.

“Think you’re hot shit, huh?” No-shirt demanded. The end of his gun had started shaking. “Who fucking sent you, huh? Maria Antonia? Or you and them werewolves gonna try and kill us?”

“Ray, shut your shit down,” Erik said.

The entire timbre of his voice had shifted, his dull eyes glinting with fire from Gav’s cigarette. He no longer seemed frightened—might as well have not been being suspended by his shirt collar for the way he looked at his cult, each member in turn. They all shrank, big men hunkering down under his icy gaze.

“Guns in their holsters. Right now.”

Oh, they didn’t wanna do it, Previously-silent Redneck was sweating a storm and No-shirt had turned magenta. But there was clicking and shuffling as guns were returned to their places.

“Merle, go tell everyone it was an accident. Just some drunk, goofing boys.” Trigger-happy nodded and jammed his cap on tighter, scowling at Gav all the while. “Charlie, for the love of God, go tell your wife and kids that everything is okay, Christ’s sake.”

Previously-silent edged past. Alejandro curled his lip as he passed, revealing a mouth full of fangs, which encouraged him to move down the hall faster. Got Gav’s blood pumping a little faster too, though he managed to keep it swallowed down. Now was a little late in the game to be skittish around wolves. Gav could hear someone crying as Previously-silent opened the furthest door.

“Can you put me down?” Erik asked, pulling Gav’s attention back. “You’re makin’ people uncomfortable. You didn’t hafta come in that way, man.”

Gav gave him a shake, head tilted back so Erik didn’t hit the cherry. No-shirt practically yelped and put both fists up. Alejandro growled at him and he shrank back against the window blinds, dislodging commemorative flags from between the slats.

“What’d I do?” Erik’s voice was getting shrill again. “Cho says—oh God, did you come for Cho? I’m sorry. I’m legitimately sorry. Cho always accepts an apology! I’m sorry for whatever I did! What’d I do anyway?!”

Crumbled like a house of cards. There were only so many responses men had to him. Guess vampires were just as affected by him as regular humans.

“Oh, you ain’t done nothing, Erik.”

“C’mooooooooooon, man!” Erik pleaded.

Both hands went to Gav’s wrist, and his eyes were starting to glitter. No-shirt looked pretty distraught, too, juddering forward as he decided to charge then thought better of it, over and over.

“This is about Maria Antonia Viesca,” Gav explained.

He was starting to feel bad. Even for Erik, parasite he was, barely twenty when he was infected if his looks were anything to go by, and pitiful in his fear. His cultists, eager as they’d been to murder him. The woman and children somewhere else in the trailer who needed comforting. Holding onto contempt was getting harder and harder. Not this shit again! It was bad enough with the wolves! Gav swallowed all those impulses down, reminded himself that the rednecks were slaves and Erik was a life-ruiner. Just because he was pitiful didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. Right. Right!

“What’d Maria Antonia do? I can’t control her, man, she’s like three hundred years old and she still thinks limpieza de sangre means something!”

“Don’t know what that means. What do you know about the vampire that lives at the old Hilton?”

Erik blinked, knocking a few tears free, and squinted at Gav like he’d grown another head.

“Finley? What about him?”

“He’s in my fucking house, Erik Walker, he is in my canning pantry right now, because Maria Antonia sold the hotel out from under him and Cho decided he could stay with me. That’s what Maria Antonia did. Can you tell me about that, Erik?”

Erik glanced away. The look he had when he turned back was so earnestly pathetic that Gav had to stomp the brakes on his pity, hard.

“Please put me down. I, I’ll talk, there’s no need to… please, put me down.”

Gav dropped him. He landed on his feet lightly and straightened out his clothing—then was yanked backwards again by No-shirt, who put himself between Erik and Gav, magenta replaced by chalk white.

“I’m n-not gonna let you touch him again.” That man’s voice was all shakes, no power. “F-f-fucking asshole.”

Erik rubbed his shoulder and clicked his tongue. Snappy as a trained dog, No-shirt looked back at him.

“Ray, clean your bite and put your shirt on. You’re gonna give me a stroke with this shit. He’s a night-creature, Ray, he’d kill you like it wasn’t nothing.”

No-shirt’s lower lip quivered like a child’s, then he stormed between Gav and Alejandro, snatching his shirt from the couch as he passed. Erik sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, and sat down.

“You, uh, you want a beer?” he asked. When Gav and Alejandro both just stared at him, he leaned back, expression now exasperated. “Okay, whatever. Pull up a chair, I guess.”

No-shirt—Ray staunchly refused to look at them while he rinsed himself off in the kitchen sink, though they had to get near shoulder-to-shoulder with him to get the extra chairs. Erik muted the TV, tucked one foot under himself and raised the opposite knee to prop his elbow on. His free hand tapped against the loveseat’s threadbare arm.

“First off, before I say anything, can I ask why Cho sent you to come harass me instead of Maria Antonia?”

“She says that if Maria Antonia likes playing people sideways like that, she can enjoy being played sideways herself. Whatever that means.”

Erik scoffed.

“Yeah, that sounds like Cho. She’s real eye for an eye. I mean, I guess y’all know that.”

He inclined his head in Alejandro’s direction. Alejandro showed no sign of noticing, since his attention appeared to be fully invested in the scorch marks on the floor left by the bullet. Erik made a tight-lipped face and looked back at his hand. The rhythm he was beating paused, then came back, faster, more sporadic.

“I’ll tell Maria Antonia she needs to apologize. Cho always accepts apologies.”

“It’s limited time, Cho’s pissed,” Gav said. “Except she says I ain’t to specify the time limit. Uh, probably more than a couple of days, at least.”

Erik raised his eyebrows high for a second, mouth that same thin line.

“God. I don’t wanna be involved with that sort of fight. Guess we’re both stuck with it, huh?”

Gav ignored the rumble of indignation that a tick had just compared them.

“Enough about the apology. That’s not my business. Hell, if it weren’t for Cho trying to be passive aggressive it probably wouldn’t be yours neither.”

“True ‘nuff. Well, while you’ve got me in the hot seat, what do you wanna know? I’ll be honest, I swear. I don’t want you to come back and beat my ass again for lying.”

That Gav had not even begun to beat Erik’s ass was something he decided to keep to himself. He looked for the best way to phrase his question, and the pause was long enough for Alejandro to speak.

“Maria Antonia sold the hotel without warning this other vampire. She must have known it would upset Cho-rong. All you vampires do is done with profit in mind. Therefore, it was more profitable, in her view, to have this vampire dead than to have Cho-rong be happy with her. Explain.”

Well damn. For someone who most often seemed to struggle with keeping his feet on the ground, Alejandro could sure cut to the heart of an argument. Erik blinked hard a few times in shock. Gav spared a glance for Ray, who leaned up on the counter and listened with his anger just edging over fear.

“Weeeeeeelllllll…” Erik drew out the syllable, stalling for time. “Aw, damn. I don’t know, man, I don’t know what Finley and Maria Antonia’s grudge is about. She never talks about him. She just told me never ever to go near the hotel, cut off any of my friends who did. I figured it was just ‘cuz he’s near to feral. All them corpses, y’know, that’s a sure sign a vampire’s lost his mind. I don’t like goin’ into town anyway, it was no big deal to do what she said.”

“She must be afraid of him,” Gav said.

“Maria Antonia? Afraid? She’s three hundred years old, I’ve watched her—” Erik’s voice caught, and he looked away again, eyes wide with fright like he was still alive, pupils shrunk to pinpricks. “I’ve watched her do some really scary shit, man. I got no idea what could scare her more than Cho. I just… I just keep my head down, y’know?”

“All that city politicking is bullshit,” Ray remarked. Gav had that same fear for him he’d had before. Speaking out of turn was not something vampires tolerated well. Especially not the meat. Still, Erik just nodded along. “Leave that to them, we’re good people out here and we mind our own business. Them cityfolks wanna tear each other apart, let ‘em, that’s my opinion.”

“It’s mine, too,” Erik said.

“I mean it’s a fine opinion to have,” Gav said, refusing to acknowledge in their presence that this was the philosophy that had guided his entire life before Cho. “But it don’t really help me too much. Can’t you tell me nothing? Anything about his… about who he feeds off of? Nobody’s come around my house but I expect that’ll change here directly.”

“Y’see, that’s something I always wondered too, ‘cuz I got my guys and Maria Antonia is swimmin’ in sycophants. All my siblings—well, I mean, more accurately all the other ones Maria Antonia infected—they’ve all got people too. But I never heard nothing from any of them about Finley’s friends. As far as I know, he’s got none. But that just ain’t how it works, man, we all got friends.”

Friends sure was a nice way to word ‘collection of enslaved addicts.’ Gav kept a tight lid on that observation and tried to keep with the civilized conversation.

“You ever hear anything from any other… any other night-creatures ever get into contact with you? They said anything? I need something, Erik, I’ve got no idea who’s living in my house and no idea what to expect. And I’m sure it don’t need telling, but Finley is an asshole. Can’t ask that fucker nothing!”

“Uh… my sister Kiana says when she went to talk to him, he chased her away and when she hit him, he just hissed and kept coming. She said he was damn fast and way, way stronger than her. Which is weird because he’s only like nine years old. Kiana… well, she’s older than nine, that’s all I can tell you.”

Klaxons began to go off in Gav’s head as Erik’s testimony butted heads with every other piece of information he’d taken in.

“Only nine? You sure about that, Erik?”

Erik nodded fast and conciliatory. Ray grumbled and put his hand on his Glock, but didn’t move otherwise, and Gav was pretty well convinced he knew shooting would be useless.

“Yeah, that’s when he showed up! About nine years ago! Cho told Maria Antonia to put him up in the hotel, nobody else wanted it so we figured it was fine. After Kiana went to visit him, we decided that even if it wasn’t fine, none of us wanted to tell him that. It just wasn’t worth the trouble. I mean, that’s what I heard. Like I said. I stay out here, man. I don’t want none of that shit. I just wanna hang out with my friends and collect guns, man. That’s all.”

“That’s true,” Alejandro cut in. “Erik doesn’t cause a lot of trouble. If he did, the Fort Watchers would have eaten him by now.”

Ignoring that Alejandro had just threatened to eat somebody right in front of him, which was horrifying and now Gav’s palms were sweaty and he was thinking of other people wolves had eaten, stay on track, Gavin—ignoring all that, it looked like they’d run into the wall. There really was nothing more Erik could tell him.

He’d revealed something pretty telling, though. That had to be worth something.

“If that’s that, that’s what it is,” he said. “I appreciate… I appreciate it, Erik.”

“Yeah, sure, it’s nothing, man. I ain’t Maria Antonia, I want Cho to like me. She’s real nice, y’know? She’s a… she’s a good friend to have.”

Alejandro shifted around in his seat, saying nothing, expression not changing, in a way that managed to convey just how uncomfortable he found that sentiment.

“Before I go,” Gav said, cutting into the butter-thick tension, “is there anything you wanna say? Any message for Cho?”

“Uh, not really. That I’m sorry, I guess.” Erik sighed in such a way that his bangs flew up. They flopped right back down, but it got the picture across.
“I mean, I didn’t do nothing but I am sorry about this. I should really be apologizing to you, though, Finley’s in your canning pantry.”

“I got something to say!” Ray said.

Man, you are gonna get killed with the amount of impertinence you’re showing, Gav thought.

“Go ahead, Ray,” Erik said. “But if it’s bullshit I’m gonna take away the Kel Tec I just bought you.”

Ray came forward, puffed his chest out like he wasn’t scared Gav was gonna punch his head clean off.

“I just wanted you to know that whatever you think you saw, it wasn’t like that, okay?”

“I… my good man, I have no Earthly idea what you are attempting to tell me.”

“When you kicked down our door, which, by the way, real fucked up of you, stuff was going on. I’m just telling you right now, you misinterpreted. It ain’t like that. Me’n’Erik go way back. Back to high school. He’s my best friend, and friends look out for each other, even when one of them develops a, uh, affliction.”

He swallowed, stubble-covered Adam’s apple bobbing. He had a rebel flag tattooed on his arm, and Gav suddenly found this very relevant.

“Uh, okay? Calm down—”

“It’s just what friends do! There’s nothing gay about it!”

Alejandro closed his eyes and mouthed ‘are you serious,’ while Erik made that same tight-lipped face from before. Eyebrows raise, eyes averted. Something about it, and the way he was sitting, and all the information that was coming together here, told Gav that Ray’s understanding of the situation was flawed.

“Uh. Whoa. I see. Man, whatever, I wasn’t paying no attention to that,” he said.

“I just… just wanted to let you know.” Ray jutted his chin out, entirely unaware that Erik was withering on the couch. “Don’t want you looking down on Erik or the rest of us. It’s not gay. Taking care of your friends ain’t gay.”

“Ray. Ray, please sit back down.” Erik sounded like he’d just run a marathon and only recently caught his breath. “Why do you care what they think?”

“Just couldn’t stand the thought of them getting weird about it, that’s all,” Ray muttered, doing as he was told.

Gav stood and dusted his knees off, so done with this entire conversation it was giving him a headache.

“Yyyeah. Okay. You know what? Goodbye, Erik Walker, I’m gonna just… fuck off now, I suppose.”

“You do that. Prop the door back up on your way out, would you?”

Gav and Alejandro made it all the way back to the truck before Gav couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Are you kidding me? Not gay? What the fuck? That’s your big concern? I shook Erik down like a mafioso and this guy’s caught up on how gay he looked? Who cares! Who honestly gives even one shit! There was a tick latched onto him and he’s worried about being gay? Good Lord, Alejandro, I just do not understand my elders at times.”

“I never understand humans,” Alejandro supplied, already in the truck.

“Let’s go, Gavin.”

The new engine and suspension handled getting out of the ditch a real treat. Gav had expected to have to back out quite a bit to get to level ground. They rattled around on the dirt road, bouncing in the ruts, before it intersected a paved farm-to-market. The highway wasn’t far from here. Gav was already pleased with the time he was gonna make.

“Gavin?”

Alejandro wasn’t looking at him. Instead, he was staring down at his hands, palm-up in his lap, fingers curled loosely.

“Yeah?”

“Why do you hate vampires so much?”

Gav’s hands stayed firm on the steering wheel, and his pulse stayed slow, and he focused on these facts to assure himself he was calm.

“They’re parasites, man. They’re gross. They enslave people.”

“Yes. This is true. It’s different, though. I can smell it.”

Typical wolfy thing to say. Gav risked a look sideways. Alejandro’s eyes were wide and fixed on him, and he was close, hand up on the console. Gav hadn’t even seen a hint of motion out of his periphs. He didn’t swerve. It was a close thing.

“I know that you hate us wolf-children,” Alejandro said. His breath was warm on Gav’s ear. Smelled faintly like black earth and leaf litter and sharp, fresh-spilled blood. “In a very personal way. It smells different from the hatred something has for its predators.”

“Oh no joke man?”

Gav’s voice couldn’t ever be called shrill, but it had certainly climbed an octave. He didn’t feel good. The road was starting to blur. Everything was rocking. The only steady thing was the heat puffing on his skin, raising goosebumps down his back.

“Yes. Maybe Young Henry wouldn’t be able to smell it. Maybe the ones you killed in San Antonio couldn’t. But I can. Some of us wronged you.”

He had to pull over. He couldn’t drive. Clods of grass and soil flew up from his tires and his breaks squealed. Alejandro jerked in his seat, which Gav had just enough presence of mind to think probably spooked him. The last time this happened, he went through the windshield. Gav would bet every goddamn cent he had to his name that Alejandro wasn’t as spooked as him.

“Alejandro, you are fixing to get me real cross with you, my friend,” he rasped.

“You can hit me if it gets too bad,” Alejandro said, voice bland. “I won’t be upset if you do. But I want to make my case.”

“Make your fucking case then.”

“Lots of human people have been wronged by wolves. It’s what happens. But to have been personally wronged by wolves to the degree you have been… and also to have that same hatred for vampires… that’s a lot of misery for someone who just minds his own business. Whatever happened…”

Alejandro sat back. He wasn’t out of slapping range, as he was still in the truck, but he wasn’t breathing right up on Gav’s face. That thoughtful but vacant expression was back, and though Gav was happy to not be the focus of his undivided attention, he was still having trouble breathing. Somebody was firing a gun. A lot of guns. Burning fur scraped the back of his throat like posthumous revenge. Howls ripped through the smoke.

“Whatever happened to you was very bad,” Alejandro said after a long pause. “I… I think that it’s time for me to stop talking right now this instant.”

“I sure would appreciate it, Alejandro.”

After a minute or so of reminding himself what year it was, Gav got back on the road. Alejandro stayed absolutely silent and absolutely still, eyes once more downcast. The quiet continued all the way to the gas station Gav had picked him up at. Gav pulled into the side parking because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he couldn’t park straight and didn’t want to take up too much room. Alejandro got his sweet tea and put his hand on the door like he was ready to go. Then he paused again. Oh God. What now?

“Um. I. I shouldn’t have said all of that. It was bothering you and I made it worse. I. Um. I.”

“Are you trying to say sorry?”

Alejandro nodded and scrunched up like he was bracing for the blow he’d invited earlier. Gav tried hard to hold onto his frustration. Truly he did. But it all melted away at the naked shame on Alejandro’s face. The idea that he was fully expecting to get his shit slapped was also upsetting. Dangit. This damned wolf! Gav just had to save the one wolf out of the pack that would inspire sympathy.

He’d always had a problem, everyone always told him he did, with sympathy.

He reached across the console and clapped his hand on Alejandro’s shoulder. It didn’t quite take up the whole thing, but it was damn close. Alejandro’s cheeks went pink and his mouth opened, though nothing came out.

“Yeah, well,” Gav said. “It is what it is, man. It… it is what it is and it can’t be no more than that.”

“I cannot believe I forgot the word ‘sorry.’” Alejandro sighed and dragged his hand down his face. His fingertips brushed Gav’s wrist as the hand fell to his lap. “I shouldn’t be so chatty. I’m not very good at talking to people.”

“It’d be pretty damn rich of me to judge you for that, all things considered.”

“You’re hard on yourself. Sorry is a pretty big concept to forget.” He scratched the side of his head again, tried for eye contact and failed. “Um. Are you mad at me?”

Gav snorted and took his hand back.

“Yeah, Alejandro, I am.”

“I’ll make it up to you. I would be… I don’t want you to… I like spending time with you, so whatever you want to make yourself feel better, you can have it. Anything.”

That was an insinuation Gav did not have the energy to fully unpack. He was tired and still a little steamed and he had Finley’s shit to worry about. No, not tonight, Alejandro, he was not having this conversation. Not to-goddamn-night.

“Aw, don’t get too worked up. Can’t believe I’m having to comfort you… just give me a little bit. I’ll get over it. I always do.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Sure, man, whatever, it’s no big deal. Why don’t you get yourself home? I don’t want one of your packmates coming for me asking what I’ve done with you.”

Alejandro stared for a few more seconds. Like Gav was speaking in tongues or some shit. The same incredulous look Erik had worn. Then, he shrugged, and hopped out of the truck.

“I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, of course. Be safe, Alejandro.”

“What does that mean? Nobody is ever safe. You’re so strange. Goodbye, Gavin.”

Would this man die if he didn’t say some wildly unsettling shit every five minutes? Gav watched him amble toward the dark pasture and disappear, the back of his neck prickling. Always did when something came in from the reflection. Before he headed home, where Finley was waiting, he turned his music up, set his head on his steering wheel, and yelled until his throat was hoarse.

At least he hadn’t started crying. There was that. Gav wiped the spit from his chin, got himself re-centered for a second. Home. Finley. Right. Put the wolves from your mind, Gav, because they are the least of your worries. The worse they wanna do is give you flashbacks. He ignored the insinuation from his lizard brain that in Alejandro’s case that was not the only thing they wanted. No time for that. No time, no spare stress. He’d find time to obsess over it.

He always did make time to obsess over things that made him guilty.

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